• Adele Shaw

Bonding With Your Horse


With the popularity of social media a new buzz word has taken over the equestrian world. It's a magical word that conjures up images of beautiful horses performing rears, circles, or galloping on the beach and over hillsides all while completely at liberty or tackless with their handlers. It's all so beautiful and truly romantic, I mean.. who wouldn't want to experience a moment so unforgettable with their beloved horse?

These moments have become idolized in the equestrian world. We've become convinced that these moments in time are due to this idea of "bonding" with the horse, as if it's some magical tie that connects horse and rider deeper than anything that we could ever explain. Social media broadcasts these images and video clips, or we watch clinicians work with horses in ways that seem practically supernatural and we are told it's all about developing a "bond", "respect" or "becoming the leader". We see it, and we want it, but we don't always know how to get it or really what "bond" even is in the first place.

When someone tells me they want to develop a bond with their horse they often are referring to images they see on internet or clips they watch of horse people doing amazing things at liberty with their horses. Sometimes though, they are referring to working more in harmony just on an every day bases. They want their horse to stop refusing jumps, or to "respect" their space and they think if they had a better "bond" with their horse these problems would disappear. The problem is that this word "bond" has become a grossly misunderstood and overused word that really just sounds nice but has no place in the horse world.. at least not in the way it's usually used.

So what is "bond"? Or better yet, what isn't "bond"?

The word "bond" is supposed to refer to a deep connection between horse a handler. An almost supernatural connection that stands the test of time and boldly defies all obstacles. Idealistically, a horse would choose to trust this handler it's bonded with when in the face of danger, going wherever the handler asked because the horse trusted the handler so deeply it would leap through fire or jump off a cliff for this person. This explanation of "bond" is spiritual and supernatural in nature, anthropomorphizing the horse with human like attributes.

What the word "bond" is really, is training. Using one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning, patience, time, repetition, and effective communication any human can obtain "bond" with their horse. I know, I'm sucking the magic right out of it, but that's exactly my goal. Labeling images and actions with arbitrary words that are meaningless and unhelpful doesn't do anyone any good. It's also extremely harmful to the horse.

You might ask how working towards developing "bond" and experiencing such magical moments with your horse could be harmful to the horse. The danger and risk comes from focusing on an end goal without understanding how to get there or what's involved. I can look at one picture of a horse rearing at liberty, knowing that handler used positive punishment and negative reinforcement to train their horse, and then look at another picture of a horse rearing at liberty and know that handler used positive reinforcement to train their horse. However, bystanders wanting to imitate may not understand or know the difference.

In both pictures the horse and handler are displaying this idealistic moment of bonding and deep connection (as we are told), but one horse was trained using fear tactics and force while the other was trained using free shaping and reward. One horse had an option, the other horse did not. (I'll explain more in a moment.)

This may sound rather harsh to some, or like I'm calling out people that don't exclusively use positive reinforcement. I'm not. This is not an article about the qualities of positive reinforcement, but rather the science behind "bond" training. Negative reinforcement can be effectively used in a healthy way. I personally use negative reinforcement in moderation at appropriate times, but I'm fully aware of the difference this has mentally on the horse and use it as carefully as I do with all forms of training.

If you've read any of my other articles you'll know how strongly I feel about understanding each of the four quadrants of operant conditioning when working with your horse, as well as understanding true scientifically based equine behavior. If you don't know them or don't understand them you are at risk of causing mental harm to your horse and are probably not effectively training.

Briefly I'll explain the three I mention in this article to help, but I strongly recommend you educate yourself as well.

Negative Reinforcement is the application of a negative stimulus until a desired result occurs, and then the removal of that negative stimulus. "pressure and release"

Positive Punishment is the application of something strongly negative following an undesired behavior. In simple terms, this is a "punishment" or a "correction".

Positive Reinforcement is the application of a positive stimulus or reward following the performance of a desired behavior.

When applied in horse training, and more specifically to this article "at liberty training" or during trick training, negative reinforcement involves using some sort of pressure or force to make the horse perform a desired behavior. Once the behavior is performed, or some small step towards the desired end behavior, the pressure is removed. This can look like using a rope to teach a horse to bow or lay down, or it can look like driving/chasing a horse around a round pen until it begins to lick and chew or lower it's head.. and eventually follows you around, or it could be as small as light taps with the whip until the horse takes a step or lifts a leg. The horse is being taught - in order to avoid pressure it needs to do a certain behavior when asked. Very simply put, the horse is performing the human's requested behavior in order to avoid pressure.

Now, lets add in positive punishment to the mix. Usually horse trainers wont exclusively use positive punishment, but it's often unknowingly applied during training. Especially when the primary training form is negative reinforcement. The reason for this is that negative reinforcement can easily escalate to positive punishment. For example, let's say you're working in the round pen with your horse and you're doing "join up" or "lunging for respect". You want the horse to follow you around the round pen, but what happens when the horse get's distracted and walks off? Often the handler will turn quickly and (in the words of one very popular horse trainer) "go crazy", making the horse wish they hadn't gotten distracted. This is positive punishment. You are reprimanding the horse for ever walking away from you or getting distracted.

Having explained those first two and how they are used, let's look at how you might use positive reinforcement to train "bond". With positive reinforcement, you'll ideally be using free shaping. Free shaping involves marking a specific movement or action of the horse (such as a clicker sound) and then following with a reward (such as scratches, verbal praise, or food reward), then gradually building up the small actions into a bigger action until the end goal is achieved.